Johannes Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, developed, circa 1439, a printing system by adapting existing technologies to printing purposes, as well as making inventions of his own. Printing in East Asia had been prevalent since the Tang dynasty, and in Europe, woodblock printing based on existing screw presses was common by the 14th century. Gutenberg’s most important innovation was the development of hand-molded metal printing matrices, thus producing a movable type based printing press system. His newly devised hand mould made possible the precise and rapid creation of metal movable type in large quantities. Movable type had been hitherto unknown in Europe. In Europe, the two inventions, the hand mould and the printing press, together drastically reduced the cost of printing books and other documents, particularly in short print runs.
The printing press spread within several decades to over two hundred cities in a dozen European countries. By 1500, printing presses in operation throughout Western Europe had already produced more than twenty million volumes. In the 16th century, with presses spreading further afield, their output rose tenfold to an estimated 150 to 200 million copies. The operation of a press became synonymous with the enterprise of printing, and lent its name to a new medium of expression and communication, “the press”.
In Renaissance Europe, the arrival of mechanical movable type printing introduced the era of mass communication, which permanently altered the structure of society. The relatively unrestricted circulation of information and (revolutionary) ideas transcended borders, captured the masses in the Reformation and threatened the power of political and religious authorities. The sharp increase in literacy broke the monopoly of the literate elite on education and learning and bolstered the emerging middle class. Across Europe, the increasing cultural self-awareness of its peoples led to the rise of proto-nationalism, and accelerated by the development of European vernacular languages, to the detriment of Latin’s status as lingua franca. In the 19th century, the replacement of the hand-operated Gutenberg-style press by steam-powered rotary presses allowed printing on an industrial scale.